In June 2011, Sarah Webb, who has died of cancer aged 49, gave a rousing speech at the national conference of the Chartered Institute of Housing in which she told the housing minister, Grant Shapps, that he needed to “bat for housing within government” and explain to David Cameron why housing matters. She reminded him that there were many committed people in the sector and that he needed to engage with them, not just with thinktanks.
Sarah was appointed chief executive of the institute in 2008, after spending five years as policy director. From the outset, she made clear that her aim was to make housing a central plank of government policy. She had a key influence on this when it began to happen under the Brown government. In 2009 government housing investment rose to its highest for 15 years. The prime minister announced new housing plans after meeting Sarah and took the unusual step of writing to institute members about the increase in investment.
The fundamental change to the financing of council housing, due to begin from April 2012 – started by Labour and continued by the coalition – was a particular reform that Sarah championed. It means that councils will for the first time keep all the rents they receive from tenants, and have more freedom to borrow for new investment. Her influence was recognised when she was appointed CBE in 2010.
Sarah was one of three children born to Peter and Dorcas Webb. She went to Presdales school in Ware, Hertfordshire, then studied anthropology at St AndrewsUniversity and, in 1988, received a postgraduate qualification in housing from Heriot-WattUniversity. Her convictions about the importance of housing came from her time in Glasgow in an era when it probably had the worst housing in Britain. As a student on a field trip to the Blackhill area, in the north-east of the city, she saw children running in the streets with no shoes, who started throwing stones at the bus she was in. She determined to find and promote ways in which better housing, and better housing managers, could help people change their own lives.
Sarah had a series of housing jobs in Scotland, starting as a housing officer in Glasgow’s Castlemilk estate in 1988. She spent two years as a senior consultant at the town-planning consultancy DTZ Pieda, and had a spell as director of the community-based Southside Housing Association in Glasgow. She moved south in 1998 to take the lead strategic housing role at Birmingham city council, where she first started to be asked for her views by government departments. She then headed a special team in the deputy prime minister’s office, working with councils to assess the future of their housing services.
In April 2001 she helped shape what was probably the best government housing strategy of recent decades. She was also one of the architects of the community-based companies that began in 2002 and now run half of council-owned housing, having invested £6bn in modernising the stock.
While working in Birmingham, Sarah fell ill and used a wheelchair for several months. She was then on crutches for the rest of her life. I well remember going to a meeting with her in London, only to find her still returning, more than half an hour later, from what for me was a 10-minute walk. She never let such difficulties get in the way of what she wanted to do.
Although she was a pragmatist eager to work with the coalition government, no one was more frustrated than Sarah when, in the 2010 spending review, the housing budget was cut from £8.4bn over the previous three-year period to £4.4bn over the next four years. Perhaps the new language about social housing hurt her even more. In her last speech, she urged Shapps to avoid turning social housing into temporary welfare housing for the most needy only. The speech referred back to her experiences in Glasgow.
Sarah is survived by her father and her sisters, Laura and Samantha.
Sarah Webb, housing administrator, born 5 August 1962; died 4 September 2011
Original post: The Guardian